Commercial Fishing Like a Real Alaskan
There are many ways to experience Alaska, whether on your own or as a part of a tour or cruise. Most of the businesses tout themselves as showing “the REAL Alaska,” but that is not always the case. I recently took part in a commercial fishing experience with Alaska Commercial Fishing Adventures, one of the most truly authentic Alaskan experiences I’ve come across in my four years living and working in the great white north.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I walked into the cozy, boutique lobby of the Silverbow Inn in downtown Juneau, AK. Flo, a dreadlocked, Carhartt-clad German entrepreneur and Hassan (Has), a soft-spoken photographer from Mexico, greeted me. Flo recently started a German travel agency, murkl.com, and has was the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s storyteller for the experience we were all about to embark on.
The adventure: 3 days as commercial deckhands aboard the Ocean Wave, a 43-foot commercial troller in the Gulf of Alaska with our Captain, Geoff Peterson.
From urban to rural
We departed for Juneau airport where we boarded a 5-seater Havilland Beaver floatplane destined for Elfin Cove. This tiny community of fishermen built into the trees above a rocky cove resembled something between the Ewok treehouses of Endor and the hobbit houses of Hobbiton. The floatplane landed a dock, where we met our captain along with a group of 4 residents waiting in a small motor boat (a skiff) to get their groceries that had been packed into the back of the plane. Elfin Cove has no road access and no dock to accommodate the public ferry system, so all supplies arrive by floatplane or private boat.
After a safety briefing which included trying on survival suits (video), we cast off to fish for the afternoon.
Alaskan trollers are iconic boats. They have long booms extending out from each side that support 2 lines apiece. Each line holds 15 removable lines with hooks (that’s 60 hooks in the water at a given time for the math-challenged). “Running gear” consists of putting the lines out and letting them sit in the water as the boat trolls at 2-3 knots until fish start biting. We then pull them in and haul them on board with gaffes, basically a club with a big ol’ hook on the end of it. After we run through the gear, we clean the fish and pack them on ice in cargo holds below deck.
Sharing a way of life
Geoff is a life-long fisherman and with the exception of his first two years on earth, a life-long Alaskan. His father hand-built a commercial fishing boat in the Miramar desert of California (where he acquired the nickname Noah) and sailed his wife and 5 children up to Haines, AK. He worked as a commercial fisherman the rest of his life.
Geoff’s brother, Mark, fishes on the same boat his father built 51 years ago. Geoff purchased the Ocean Wave a few years prior and basically rebuilt it from bow to stern. Mike, his deckhand, has crewed on commercial fishing vessels for 40 years. He has a rugged look to him – a gray goatee, camo baseball cap and sweatshirt, and moves like a man who’s used his body to make a living for a long time. But his demeanor quickly gives away a kindness and patience that made him a great teacher for a bunch of greenhorns (newbies) learning how to commercial fish.
“If there is any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something”
– July Delpy, Before Sunrise
Geoff started Alaska Commercial Fishing Adventures to share his way of life with people in an authentic way. From the moment we stepped off our floatplane, we experienced the realities of living and working in remote Alaska: Groceries delivered by floatplane, sharing stories with the other fishermen on the dock at night, anchoring in a remote cove after a long day of running gear and cleaning fish, and learning about the harsh truths of a career as a commercial fisherman.By the end of my three days with Geoff and his deckhand Mike, I felt a true connection to the people, the place, and the way of life, unlike any travel experience I’ve had before.
Isn’t that why we travel in the first place? To make those connections in an attempt to understand the world and our place in it?
From ocean to plate: sustainable seafood firsthand
I also felt more tangibly connected with the sustainable seafood supply chain. Imagine ordering a salmon in a restaurant in Chicago or Omaha: Do you know where it comes from? Is it farmed or wild?
We caught our salmon in Cross Sound, Alaska, near Elfin Cove. We cleaned (gutted) them, put them on ice, then transported them to a tender, a “middle man” who takes fish from fishermen and delivers them to processors. The processors fillet and package the fish and put them on ice or flash freeze them and put them on a barge or plane that eventually goes to your restaurant. We lived, breathed, and contributed to the first part of this process, and experienced firsthand the amazing amount of care and sometimes risk that goes into bringing these fish to dinner plates around the world.
If you want a truly authentic experience fishing in Alaska, this would be one of my top recommended experiences, perhaps the top. Connect with the people, the place, the lifestyle, and the sustainable food source that fuels it all.
Author’s note: I participated in this experience as a part of a previous position with Travel Juneau. Other than taking part in the experience itself, I am not being compensated in any way for this article. Thoughts are my own.